Best Careers 2009: Optometrist

By Marty Nemko

Optometrist. Ophthalmologist. Optician. Many people confuse them, but a career as an optometrist offers unmistakable advantages. Optometrists on average earn more than twice as much as opticians (the people who grind lenses and fit you for glasses). And optometrists get to do most of what ophthalmologists do, without the medical degree: diagnose and treat eye diseases, perform minor surgery (in some states), and of course fit people for glasses and contact lenses. Yet the required training is years shorter than it is for an ophthalmologist: a four-year, post-bachelor’s program.

With so many aging boomers in need of vision care, the job prospects are strong.  Laser surgery that corrects vision problems has slightly diminished demand for optometrists, but in the future that’s likely to be outweighed by demographic trends and other factors. There’s also a lot of satisfaction in this career, since most vision problems can be corrected with lenses or relatively minor surgery.

Because the job is so appealing, it can be tough to land a spot in optometry school. Most optometrists are self-employed, so it helps if you have an entrepreneurial bent and a knack for smart marketing approaches, like conducting free vision screenings in shopping malls.

A Day in the Life. Like most optometrists, you’re in private practice, so you’re responsible for the business side of your shop as well as the clinical work. Your office is based in a Wal-Mart; you pay a percentage of your income to the retail chain in exchange for the plum location. You start the day by handling some paperwork, then turn to writing an article on glaucoma for a local newspaper that serves an older population; that will probably bring in some business. Your first patient, like most, is there to get fitted for new glasses and contact lenses. But in the course of doing the exam, you see signs of hypertension, so you urge him to see his doctor about this. Your next patient is considering LASIK surgery, and you outline the pros and cons. There are routine patients, but a few challenging ones, too. One woman who recently had cataract surgery sees you for follow-up care. You prescribe glaucoma medication for another patient. Then there’s a legally blind man whom you fit with a magnifier that will enable him to read. Your final patient has strabismus (she’s cross-eyed). You walk her through a series of exercises and prescribe a set of prisms she can use at home.

Smart Specialty

Pediatric optometry. The eye problems of children are generally among the most remediable. And the American Optometric Association projects high growth in this niche.
Salary Data

Median (with eight years in the field): $103,000

25th to 75th percentile (with eight or more years of experience): $86,500-$124,000

(Data provided by PayScale.com)
Training

The American Optometric Association publishes links to the websites of all the accredited optometry schools in the United States and Canada.

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